Public Justice Announces Finalists for 2022 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award

Public Justice Announces Finalists for 2022 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award

We’re thrilled to announce the finalists for the 2022 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award! The TLOY Award celebrates and recognizes the accomplishments of an attorney or team of attorneys working on behalf of individuals and groups that have suffered grave injustice or abuse. This year’s award will be presented at the organization’s 40th Annual Gala & Awards Presentation on Monday, July 18, 2022.

The four finalist teams for Public Justice’s 2022 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award include an incredible group of attorneys across the country, who took on landmark cases that address severe government abuse, pharmaceutical companies’ deceptive business practices, an unconstitutional city ordinance that targeted the homeless, and police corruption and abuse.

Below are the case profiles for the 2022 finalists:

Hawaiʻi v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., et al.

After more than 12 years of withholding critical information from the public regarding their drug’s health risks, pharmaceutical companies Bristol-Myers Squibb and various Sanofi-entities were ordered to pay more than $834 million to the State of Hawaiʻi for their misleading warning label on blood thinner drug, Plavix

The State of Hawaiʻi filed its lawsuit on March 19, 2014, in the Circuit Court of the First Circuit in Hawaiʻi, against global pharmaceutical giants Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Sanofi entities for more than a decade of violations of the State’s consumer protection laws in the promotion and marketing of their prescription antiplatelet medication, Plavix.

The companies developed and promoted the prescription drug as a means of preventing strokes and heart attacks. However, unlike most other drugs, for the blood thinner to work it needs to be activated by the body’s own enzymes, which can vary genetically. As such, this resulted in a significant portion of the population — particularly those of East Asian and Pacific Island descent — receiving substantially less anti-clotting effect, and, too often, no detectable benefit, from taking it. For example, studies revealed that 14 percent of Chinese—and upwards of 79 percent of some groups of Pacific Islanders—are unable to metabolize the drug properly, compared to two percent of white patients.

Hawaiʻi alleged that the companies knew that the time of the drug’s launch that it would not work properly for as many as one-third of patients, yet failed to change the Plavix label to warn patients and doctors of these health risks The suit culminated in a four-week bench trial beginning in October of 2020, which was conducted virtually due to COVID restrictions. To prepare for the trial, the legal team sifted through more than 12.5 million pages of the companies’ internal documents, which proved to be some of the State’s most compelling evidence, revealing damning conversations by company employees and executives that exhibited a flagrant disregard for public health and safety.

During the trial, witnesses testified virtually from around the U.S. mainland, and as far away as Paris, France. Throughout, the legal team pushed forth their claims that the profit-driven companies deliberately hid information on the limitations of the drug for certain consumers that could have impacted their choice of taking Plavix in the first place. Additionally, the companies deliberately rejected any further proposed studies that would potentially document or otherwise lead to questions about Plavix’s limitations.

On February 15, 2021, the circuit court ruled that the companies had violated Hawaii’s Unfair and Deceptive Practices Act, by “knowingly placing Plavix patients at grave risk of serious injury or death in order to substantially increase their profits.”

As such, the court ordered Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Sanofi entities to each pay $417 million in civil penalties. Currently, the companies face a similar lawsuit in the State of New Mexico. This case not only involves important consumer protection laws but sends a message to the pharmaceutical industry that it will be held accountable for profit-driven actions that harm public health and safety.

TEAM: Dan Alberstone, Peter Klausner, Evan Zucker, and Elizabeth Smiley of Baron & Budd, P.C. in Encino, Calif.; and L. Richard Fried, Jr. and Patrick F. McTernan of Cronin, Fried, Sekiya, Kekina & Fairbanks in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi

In re Flint Water Cases

In this consolidated class action and individual personal injury cases, the legal team worked for more than five years to expose the state of Michigan and its government employees’ role in the Flint Water Crisis, which harmed more than 90,000 residents in Flint — a historically Black and economically depressed community. This case highlights the important role of the justice system in holding government officials and corporate entities accountable and affirming they’re not immune to liability. 

Historically, the city of Flint purchased safe drinking water from Detroit. However, in April of 2014, the Flint municipal government, along with state officials, including Governor Snyder, and two water engineering firms under state management, devised a plan to re-direct toxic levels of contaminated water from the Flint River into the city’s drinking water in an effort to save money, despite studies indicating that the Flint Water Treatment Plant was unable to safely treat the water for drinking. Meanwhile, the state directed superior water through the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to more affluent, white communities throughout Genesee County.

Because of this switch, more than 90,000 residents and businesses in Flint received highly toxic, lead-tainted water with concentrations of up to 880 times the EPA’s legal limit, causing the corrosion of pipes, life-threatening illnesses, and serious, long-term developmental conditions in children. Despite residents’ complaints about the water’s bad smell, color, and taste—and the July 2014 outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, which killed 12 people—state officials and the engineers failed to identify corroding water pipes as part of the cause, and instead made the problem worse by recommending that the city double the dose of ferric chloride. This highly acidic chemical compounded the corrosion problem, leading directly to the lead poisoning of Flint’s children and rendering real estate worthless.

After more than a year in which Flint residents were forced to endure the contaminated water, Governor Snyder declared a state of emergency after directing Flint to reconnect to DWSD. By January 5, 2016, President Barack Obama declared a federal state of emergency.

On March 31, 2016, a group of Flint residents filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan under the Clean Water Act against the state of Michigan, the city of Flint, and various city and state employees, including former Governor Rick Snyder. An amended complaint was filed on September 29, 2017, consolidating more than a dozen class and individual lawsuits and expanding the residents’ claims to include state and federal constitutional and civil rights violations and injuries caused by the Michigan government and employees involved, including denial of due process based on the bodily integrity doctrine and equal protection due to race and economic discrimination.

In August of 2018, the district court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss, allowing litigation to move forward against the engineering companies, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) officials, and high-ranking state officials in Governor Snyder’s administration, while granting the motion to dismiss against Governor Snyder, with leave for plaintiffs to amend the complaint. On October 5, 2018, the legal team filed an amended complaint, arguing that Governor Snyder and his staff were fully aware of the mounting health issues, including the risks of legionella, and were even briefed on the city’s discovery of fecal coliform bacteria and pipe corrosion, which caused the problem in the summer of 2014. This also included MDEQ’s failure to investigate these claims or notify the public, lying to the EPA, discrediting outside toxicology analysis, and refusing DWSD’s offer to return Flint to Lake Huron water in January 2015.

On April 1, 2019, the district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion to amend its fourth complaint against Governor Snyder, allowing claims against the former Michigan governor for violating Flint citizens’ “right to bodily integrity.” Additionally, the district court allowed plaintiffs to amend class definitions to include an African-American subclass and smaller subclasses based on property damage, personal injury, injunctive relief, and a set of common issues relating to liability and causation. In August of 2019, the court allowed the citizens to appoint independent counsel to advocate for each subclass. Following the district court’s decision, Governor Snyder filed multiple appeals with the Sixth Circuit, only to be denied each time.

On August 20, 2020, the state announced a preliminary settlement of $600 million. On November 10, 2021, the district court granted final approval of the settlement after more than five years of litigation and 18 months of court-supervised negotiations and a detailed victim claims process. Due to the novel class strategy granted by the district court, the plaintiffs were able to more effectively analyze and calculate settlement terms — a vital component to assessing fair financial awards given the enormity of the class and claims, and the passage of time since the initial contamination in 2014.

Flint residents can now receive long-awaited financial relief, 80 percent of which will go to individuals who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crisis, with a large majority of that money going to children aged six and younger. The remaining funds will go to special education services in Genesee County, as well as to adults, business and property owners impacted by the water crisis.

While this litigation has concluded, litigation against the national engineering firms, both charged with professional negligence, continues, as well as separate litigation against the EPA.  In the fall of 2021, United States District Judge Judith Levy, certified the professional negligence case against the two private engineering firms.  The class certification matter is pending trial.

While this doesn’t undo the contaminated water’s long-lasting effects on the residents exposed to the lead poisoning, this landmark settlement represents a long overdue measure of justice, affirming basic human rights to clean water and a safe environment.

TEAM: Theodore J. Leopold of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.; Michael L. Pitt of Pitt, McGehee, Palmer, Bonanni & Rivers, P.C. in Royal Oak, Mich.; Emmy L. Levens, Jessica Weiner, and Leslie M. Kroeger of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.; Cary S. McGehee, Beth M. Rivers, and Channing Robinson-Holmes of Pitt, McGehee, Palmer, Bonanni & Rivers, P.C. in Royal Oak, Mich.; Shawn Raymond, Stephen Morrissey, Jordan Connors, and Katherine Peaslee of Susman Godfrey LLP in Seattle, Wash.; William H. Goodman, Julie H. Hurwitz and Kathryn Bruner James of Goodman Hurwitz & James in Detroit, Mich.; Bradford M. Berry of NAACP in Baltimore, Md.; Deborah A. LaBelle of Deborah LaBelle Law Offices in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Paul Novak and Gregory Stamatopoulos of Weitz & Luxenberg in Detroit, Mich.; Cynthia M. Lindsey and Shermane T. Sealey of Cynthia M. Lindsey & Associates, PLLC in Detroit, Mich.; Trachelle C. Young of Trachelle C Young & Associates in Flint, Mich.; Neal H. Weinfield of Dedendum Group LLC in Highland Park, Ill.; Peretz Bronstein of Bronstein, Gewirtz & Grossman, LLC in New York, NY; Esther Berezofsky of Motley Rice LLC in Cherry Hill, NJ; Teresa A. Bingman of The Law Offices of Teresa A. Bingman in Lansing, Mich.

McArdle v. City of Ocala

For years, the city of Ocala, Florida’s open lodging ordinance unlawfully targeted one of the city’s most vulnerable populations by allowing police officers to make an arrest if a person said they were homeless. The ruling in this lawsuit not only ensures lasting change to the ordinance, but shines a light on unlawful policing policies and the criminalization of homelessness 

In 2002, the city of Ocala, Florida introduced its open lodging ordinance, a subsection of which stated that a person was subject to arrest in the city if they were sleeping in public and admitted to being homeless.

In 2019, Patrick McArdle, Courtney Ramsey, and Anthony Cummings, three individuals experiencing homelessness in Ocala, sued the city, alleging that this subsection unlawfully targeted the city’s homeless population and violated Eighth Amendment protections. The lawsuit also challenged the city’s trespass policy, which involved issuing trespass warnings without an expiration date or established procedure for appeals. As such, it became a crime for many homeless individuals to merely be present in a public space.

The three plaintiffs had been arrested and convicted several times under the ordinance. Between 2016 to 2019, McArdle spent 219 nights in jail after being arrested 10 times for violating the ordinance. He was also charged more than $4,000 in court costs. Ramsey had been arrested six times in 2018, and Cummings twice in 2016.

Since September of 2015, it was found that the city had convicted a total of 264 homeless individuals, who collectively spent 5,393 nights in jail and were charged more than $300,000 in court fees for the crime of being homeless and being a human being who needs sleep.

Although the case was filed as a proposed class of more than 260 individuals, the court denied class certification.

The plaintiffs alleged that the lack of available shelter space for homeless individuals in Ocala further proved the unlawfulness of the ordinance. The legal team, comprised of attorneys from the Southern Legal Counsel, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, and a pro bono attorney, Andy Pozzuto, demonstrated that the average amount of homeless individuals sleeping in unsheltered locations was disproportionate to the number of emergency beds available in the city’s homeless shelters. Additionally, the eligibility requirements of many of the shelters limited which individuals were able to stay, where the Salvation Army, for example, only allowed a homeless individual to stay for a total of 14 days a year. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shelter space was even scarcer, as shelters cut capacity due to social distancing.

During the onset of the pandemic, the legal team, who had previously been operating from a mobile office at the city’s weekly service fairs, sought ways in which they could still go out into the community safely to continue visiting and working with the more than 40 homeless individuals who wanted to share their story for the case.

In February of 2021, the district court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, holding that arresting homeless people who cannot access shelters constituted cruel and unusual punishment and violated their constitutional rights under the Eighth Amendment. The court also held that the city was prohibited from issuing a trespass warning without due process as well as arresting a homeless individual under the ordinance without first inquiring about the availability of shelter space. The city chose not to appeal the decision and the judgment became final.

Despite the case not meeting class certification, class-wide relief for the city’s homeless population was achieved, and trespass warnings previously issued were overturned by the court. Shortly after, Ocala proposed an amendment to its open lodging ordinance, which would remove its subsection involving homelessness status.

The details of the case not only exposed the need for more services and resources for homeless individuals in communities, but also for cities to examine their own policies in ensuring they are fair and lawful. For the plaintiffs in the case and Ocala’s homeless population, the district court’s ruling represents long overdue justice in affirming their constitutional rights and entitlement — as human beings — to lay their head down to sleep without the fear of punishment.

As ACLU attorney Jackie Azis said in an interview: “Being homeless is not a crime.”

TEAM: Kirsten Anderson of Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.; Jodi Siegel of Southern Legal Counsel in Gainesville, Fla.; Chelsea Dunn of Southern Legal Counsel in Gainesville, Fla.; Jacqueline Azis and Daniel Tilley of ACLU of Florida in Miami, Fla.; and Andy Pozzuto of Alavi & Pozzuto in Ocala, Fla.

McCollum et al. v. Robeson County et al.

For more than three decades, two innocent men sat on death row after being wrongfully accused of rape and murder as a result of racial profiling and police corruption and abuse. Following their exoneration, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown filed a civil lawsuit against the individuals responsible for their decades-long incarceration. After more than six years following their exoneration, the two men received a $75 million trial award, as well as $10 million in settlements, as they continue working to rebuild their lives

Half-brothers Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were 19 and 15, respectively, when they were arrested and charged for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in the fall of 1983 in Robeson County, North Carolina. After being interrogated under duress until they confessed to the crime, both were sentenced to death, where Brown became the youngest person on North Carolina’s death row.

For the next 30 years, the two men endured decades of suffering during their imprisonment, where they were targeted for their intellectual disabilities and repeatedly bullied and sexually assaulted. In 2010, Brown sought help from the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, and in September of 2014, the two brothers were exonerated and released from prison after the Commission tested DNA evidence from the crime scene, implicating another suspect who had been convicted of a similar crime. While Brown’s sentence had been reduced to life in prison, McCollum remained on death row before being released, making him the longest-serving prisoner on North Carolina’s death row.

Following their exoneration, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit on August 31, 2015, in the Eastern District of North Carolina, against the officers from the Red Springs, North Carolina Police Department, the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office, and the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI).

In their suit, the two brothers alleged that the officers and government entities violated their due process rights, when police coerced them into confessing while fabricating evidence against them and suppressing exculpatory evidence. Additionally, the brothers argued that the combination of McCollum and Brown’s youth and intellectual disabilities made them vulnerable to manipulation and coercion by police.

The officers filed a motion to dismiss their claims on the basis of qualified immunity in October of 2015. In March of 2016, the district court denied the motion, holding that the brothers were entitled to recover damages from the officers based on their claims. Following an appeal of that decision in March of 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld the district court ruling on July 30, 2019, rejecting the police officers’ claim that they were immune from liability, and allowing McCollum and Brown to proceed with their suit against the SBI agents Leroy Allen and Kenneth Snead and Robeson County detectives Joel Garth Locklear and Kenneth Sealey.

Throughout the five-day jury trial beginning on May 10, 2021, details of the brothers’ horrifying experience came to light, revealing how they were abused and wrongfully treated from the moment they were arrested.  For example, McCollum was told that if he signed a form, he could go home. This form turned out to be a form waiving McCollum’s Miranda rights. During interrogation, the officers threatened him and his brother, called them racial epithets, and forced them to sign another document that ended up being a confession written by one of the officers. Due to the brothers’ intellectual disabilities, they were unable to read or decipher the document and had no understanding that by signing these fabricated confessions, prosecutors would use them as the primary evidence for sending them to death row.

In 2015, the state of North Carolina paid each of the brothers $750,000 as compensation for their time in prison. In 2017, the Red Springs Police Department settled for $1 million, while Robeson County agreed to a $9 million settlement on May 14, 2021, just before closing arguments began. On that same day, the jury returned a verdict against SBI in the brothers’ favor, awarding each plaintiff $31 million in compensatory damages ($1 million for each year they spent in prison), including $13 million in punitive damages, for a total award of $75 million.  The trial court later awarded the brothers prejudgment interest and attorneys fees, increasing the award to over $100 million.

Today, both men still suffer from significant mental health problems and PTSD caused by their incarceration. Brown, whose intellectual disabilities were compounded by his experience in prison, now requires full-time care. The $75 million award remains the largest in the U.S. in a wrongful conviction case and the largest personal injury case award in North Carolina history. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer even cited their case as a reason to outlaw the death penalty.

Finally, this case highlights how racial bias and discrimination infects the criminal justice system, including police and prosecutorial misconduct, and the need to ensure that constitutional and due process rights are vindicated and protected.

TEAM: Elliot Sol Abrams of Cheshire Parker Schneider, PLLC of Raleigh, N.C.; Elizabeth C. Lockwood of Ali & Lockwood LLP in Washington, D.C.; and Catherine E. Stetson, E. Desmond Hogan, and W. David Maxwell of Hogan Lovells US LLP of Washington, D.C.

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